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To the average homeowner, ordering lumber at the hardware store can be an intimidating process. There’s so many questions about kiln dried or green and what grade you may need. If you go into it knowing some of the terminology, you will be ordering lumber like a contractor in no time.
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Sizes to Consider When Ordering Lumber
Once you know the project that you are going to do with the lumber, you’re going to need to know what sizes lumber typically comes in. For example, they won’t have a piece of pine 21 inches long and 3 inches wide. You’re going to have to work with stock sizes for the most part.
Why is Lumber a Different Size Than the Tag Says (Nominal Lumber Sizes)
An important note on lumber sizing… lumber is sold according to what’s called nominal sizes. What that means is that a 2×4 does not measure 2 inches by 4 inches. Instead, it is more like 1-1/2 inches by 3-1/2 inches and lumber can be up to ¼ inch more or less than that depending on the mill.
Nominal lumber sizing is an industry standard and it isn’t a defect or the lumber yard trying to cheat you out of material. When you are ordering lumber, if you want a board that truly measures 1 inch, you need to make sure to communicate that.
Common Lumber Lengths and Widths
Lumber typically can be found as little as 2 inches wide and increases in 2 inch increments. Most lumber yards will carry lumber up to about 12 inches wide. It is actually the width of your lumber that determines strength when framing.
Lumber yards usually have boards as short as 6 feet long and length typically increases 2 feet at a time. Small lumber yards may only have a few options but large lumber yards will stock lengths up to 20 feet long!
You can always buy longer boards and cut them to the lengths you actually need for your project. Lumber yards must give the stated board length or longer. It is not uncommon to get a board slightly longer than advertised but take the free lumber and run!
Ordering Lumber Grades and Varieties
Lumber is graded for the overall quality as well. Grades are based on grain pattern, knots, and general desirability. Knots can be open, with no center, or closed with a center. Boards with less wane (bark), tighter grain, no splits, and square corners are considered more desirable.
Hardwood vs. Softwood
Fun fact: the terms hardwood and softwood don’t indicate how durable a board is. It only indicates if the wood came from a conifer tree, a softwood, or a deciduous tree, a hardwood. It’s important to know the benefits of each.
Softwood species tend to dent and absorb moisture but not all are delicate. Cedar is a great exterior option and very resistant to rot because of natural tannins it produces but it’s considered a softwood.
Softwoods are typically less expensive too. One of the least expensive is builder-grade fir. Most homes in America are framed with fir lumber, which is a softwood.
Hardwoods are common in furniture because of their dimensional stability, their beauty, and their resistance to damage. Oak, maple, and hickory are all hardwoods.
Hardwoods are usually more expensive because they typically grow slower. But again, there are exceptions to the rules. Balsa is technically hardwood and it is not only soft but also inexpensive.
Softwood Lumber Grades and Types
Softwood lumber is usually used in framing because these trees grow quickly and usually straight. However, there are different lumber grades even within the same type of tree depending on the treatment or milling after the tree was cut down.
One important note is that lumber can have multiple different grades. For example, you can have a board that is both considered green and grade 2. One refers to the drying treatment and one refers to the physical properties of the board.
Green lumber has been milled, air dried, and then stacked in units. It’s less expensive because it requires less labor and facilities than other lumber. Green lumber does warp and twist, sometimes badly, as it dries because of the tensions of the wood grain of the tree it came from.
Green lumber is perfect when twisting doesn’t matter. Good projects for this are things like chicken coops, storage sheds, catios, or garage storage shelves.
Kiln dried lumber will stay squared up and untwisted, or at least as untwisted as they were when you bought them. This lumber is milled and dried to a lower moisture content so the wood grain doesn’t stress the board as much.
For structural purposes, you should always buy kiln dried lumber. And any millwork or trim will be kiln dried to make sure it keeps its shape. Of course, some people buy this type of lumber so that they know they can find a mostly straight board.
Pressure Treated Lumber
Pressure treated lumber is a specific wood treatment. To make a pressure treated board, small cuts are made along the board and then chemicals are forced into the wood through the holes using high pressure.
This results in a board far less susceptible to rot and moisture damage so they’re popular in raised garden beds. But, the small holes are obvious and the chemicals are pretty harsh. Older processes used arsenic! While the new chemicals are not as dangerous, they are hard on your fasteners.
This is the highest quality lumber found in most hardware store lumber yards. And, to be honest, some hardware stores won’t carry this grade specifically. It is still acceptable that the board has a few knots as long as they aren’t too large. And as long as splits are small, they are still allowed too. Most grade 1 lumber is also kiln-dried.
If you don’t specify what type of lumber you want, most hardware stores are going to assume this is it. A grade 2 board is almost always a green board so it will usually warp. More knots are in these boards compared to grade 1. And grade 2 boards can have some wane, or bark, still attached to them.
This is the lowest of the low in terms of framing lumber. Utility lumber is always green because these boards are full of knots, some open and some closed. The boards are usually kind of…wonky. It’s kind of a miracle if you find one that’s straight. Expect a lot of splits too. But if you’re building something like a chicken coop or a firewood shed, it’s perfect.
Beams are actually not a specific grade of lumber. And there are many types of beams. Some are made like standard lumber and will be referred to the same way. For example, you may order a 4×8 as a beam. Other beams are made of adhesives and pieces of wood all stabilizing each other in a larger piece.
How do you Choose a Good Piece of Lumber
After ordering lumber, you have to actually go through the pile and “pick” the best boards for your project. We all want that perfect board that’s straight with no defects. But how do you know what that looks like?
Finding a Straight Board
There are two easy methods to find a straight board. The first is to lay the board on the ground and see if there are gaps either under the middle or on one end. This is definitely an easy way for a beginner to start out. Of course, if it’s a busy day in the lumber yard, you may not have room and you definitely look like a beginner.
If you want to be a professional lumber picker, you’ll hold the end of the board up to your eye and look down its length. Look for waves where the board doesn’t go straight to the ground. To be honest, there’s a reason pros look for boards like this. Even the smallest defect looks HUGE when you look down the length of the board.
Look for Defects in the Wood
After you find a straight board, look to make sure that the board has a reasonable amount of knots, wane, or splits. The reason why you’re looking for a “reasonable” amount instead of none is because each grade is allowed a specific amount of each. If you’re looking for a perfect board with no defects, spend more for the finish lumber in the moulding section.
Common Natural Lumber Defects
- Bow–Bending in the direction of the grain
- Checks–Crack in the wood fiber partway through the board
- Closed/Tight Knot–A knot that has a center solidly in place
- Crook–When the board, laid flat, curves to the left or right along the grain
- Cupping–Bending across the grain direction
- Fungus–Different colors that indicate fungal infections in the tree
- Insect Bores–Holes that are caused by insects eating tunnels in the tree
- Open/Loose Knot–A knot that has a center missing or falling out
- Sap Pocket–A sign of injury in the tree where sap collected
- Split–Crack going all the way through the board running lengthwise
- Twist–Lengthwise spiraling of the board
- Wane–A piece of bark section that keeps the board from being square
Not all Defects are Bad
Sometimes defects allow you to get interesting styles. For example, the #3 or utility pine boards frequently have some pretty intense beetle damage that causes holes and blue-gray stains. And because these are considered defects, you can pick up boards for a great price!
How do I Properly Store Lumber
When possible, you want to store lumber flat because it is far less likely to bow when stored flat and supported along its length. If you have to though, you can store boards on end for a while. Unless they are perfectly straight, which is difficult to maintain, they will tend to bow slightly over time.
If you go to the trouble to buy dried lumber, please, for the love of all things holy, store it where it will be kept dry! This means that it shouldn’t be out in the rain and if you live in a humid climate, preferably not outside. Otherwise, it’s a waste of buying the dried lumber.
But the best way to store your lumber is to actually build with it as soon as possible after buying it. Your lumber will never be as good as the day you buy it because the wood will change over time regardless of how you store it. If you use it soon after buying, it will still be in good shape.
Where Should I Buy Lumber
Lumber can be purchased from most home improvement stores. It’s not something you can buy off Amazon, at least not yet. You can go to Home Depot or Lowe’s. They certainly have more turnover in their lumber so you’ll get fresher pieces. And they store all their lumber inside which actually keeps all the boards in really good shape.
But if you have questions about the different grades of lumber or want advice on which to buy, an independent, local hardware store is best. Some even deliver larger loads of lumber to your home for a small price or even for free. Don’t be afraid to ask if you’re getting a lot of boards.
There are so many details to ordering lumber that it can be mind boggling. You need to know what type of wood, what project, and what you can typically find. Once you’re done ordering lumber, you then need to select quality pieces without defects. Good luck picking through the pile!